FFRF to Colorado Springs school boards: Stop promoting religion

State/ Church

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is working to curb unconstitutional sectarianism by Colorado Springs area school board members — and some of its efforts are getting much-deserved media attention.

“A national nonprofit organization is accusing a second El Paso County school board of promoting their own personal religious point of view,” says a local news story. “On Wednesday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent the Academy School District 20’s School Board a letter urging the district to avoid reciting religious quotes during public board meetings. The letter goes on to say that reciting a religious quote during a board meeting is very similar to a prayer, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

The piece also covers another recent complaint FFRF has made about a nearby school board.

“Following Thursday’s controversial quote reading, FFRF shifted its focus to Falcon School District 49’s School Board after receiving seven complaints from stakeholders in the community, the nonprofit accuses board members of using the public position to promote their religions,” the story continues. “‘The stuff going on in D49 is much more egregious,’ said Chris Line, a staff attorney with FFRF. ‘It’s much more clear cut.’” 

FFRF’s complaint to Academy School District 20 has been featured in the Colorado Springs paper, too.

“Academy School District 20 parents and residents on Thursday raised objections to the religious connotations of a quote the Board of Education posted with its most recent meeting agenda,” states an article in The Gazette. “The quote was brought to the attention of a national nonprofit called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which wrote a letter to the board objecting to the use of the Franklin quote. The letter stated, in part, ‘We write to request that board members refrain from including religious messages as part of official Board of Education quotes.’” 

Here are some additional facts about the two complaints that have received media play.

District 49 board member Jamilynn D’Avola proselytized a district student in a lengthy email sent as part of official district correspondence: 

God cares very deeply about every person and wants them to know who they are in Him. … All people are created equal and no one can take that away from them because it was given to them by God. When someone fully understands who they are in Christ, then they will know they are valued and will be able to overcome depression and thoughts of suicide. They will know that there are only two genders and that there is absolute truth that comes from the Word of God. There is great freedom that comes from knowing the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, but with this freedom comes great responsibility. We are not free to do whatever we feel like, we must uphold the values and truth of the Bible. 

I know that you may not agree with me, and that is ok. I will still see you as the Lord sees you, as a child of the most high God who is loved and valued above all. You are unique, and God has given you special gifts and talents. I pray that God would reveal Himself to you so that you too can experience the love of the Father.

And FFRF received multiple complaints that the District Board of Education recently started holding prayer gatherings prior to each meeting with several pastors in town, at a “Meet at the Flag Pole” event. Line says the practice doesn’t pass muster, because they take place directly before board meetings, at the location of school board meetings, are organized and promoted by school board members and “would be perceived by any reasonable observer as an endorsement of religion.”

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages, FFRF emphasized to the District 49 School Board. “Hosting a prayer gathering prior to each school board meeting is akin to school board prayer, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Line wrote to Board President John Graham.

Many Academy District 20 community members also recently contacted FFRF to complain about the board’s quote for its March 17 meeting, a Benjamin Franklin aphorism promoting a Christian definition of morality: “A Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district — all studied and appreciated as they merit — are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.” 

“Delivering a religious ‘board quote’ as part of a school board meeting is very similar to school board prayer, which clearly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Line wrote to Academy District 20 board Chair Thomas LaValley. Regardless of intent, this quote sends the message to minority religious and nonreligious community members that they are not virtuous or moral and that their participation in the Academy District 20 community is less valued than that of their Christian counterparts. 

Nearly 30 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, and higher numbers of young people identify as “Nones,” so such official speech excludes many students and their parents. 

Now, the state/church watchdog has sent out a letter to a third school district in the Colorado Springs area. Community members have informed FFRF that District 11 Board of Education Director Al Loma has sent religious messages using his official board email account, including an automated reply that stated, “Jesus is Lord.” Loma, who is a pastor at a local church, reportedly trumpets his personal religious beliefs and his church during school board meetings. 

“Regularly promoting your personal religious views as part of school board meetings is akin to school board prayer, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Line writes to District 11 Board of Education President Parth Melpakam

Loma must either fully comply with the Establishment Clause and stop violating the rights of District 11 students and their parents, or he must resign from the board, FFRF is insisting.

FFRF is appreciative about the media spotlight for its complaints and hopes that this will lead to a change of behavior among school board members.

“School boards oversee public schools that exist to educate, not to indoctrinate,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Officials need to realize that they serve all students, regardless of religious or nonreligious viewpoints, and that they’re engaging in inappropriate behavior when they resort to Christian language and imagery.” 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 36,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,100 members and two chapters in Colorado, one of which is in Colorado Springs. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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